Samantha Moore survived years of darkness in the foster care system by hiding behind her favorite characters in literature, even adopting their very words. Her fictional friends give her an identity, albeit a borrowed one. But most importantly, they protect her from revealing her true self and encountering more pain.
After college, Samantha receives an extraordinary opportunity. The anonymous “Mr. Knightley” offers her a full scholarship to earn her graduate degree at the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. The sole condition is that Sam write to Mr. Knightley regularly to keep him apprised of her progress.
As Sam’s true identity begins to reveal itself through her letters, her heart begins to soften to those around her—a damaged teenager and fellow inhabitant of Grace House, her classmates at Medill, and, most powerfully, successful novelist Alex Powell. But just as Sam finally begins to trust, she learns that Alex has secrets of his own—secrets that, for better or for worse, make it impossible for Sam to hide behind either her characters or her letters.
When the last page had been turned I was left in a desperate state. I was wholly satisfied and yet unimaginably bereft. Dear Mr Knightley concluded with heartrending perfection, but that was the very cause of my post-reading stupor-I didn’t want it to be over! Finding myself incapable of focusing on the next book in my review queue, I went back to reread my favourite scenes and experienced them anew in light of ending revelations.
Katherine Reay’s contemporary epistolary novel is one of the most brilliant characters studies I have read in years. The daring take on a first person narrative allows the reader to adopt the persona of Mr Knightley, the silent pen pal to whom the main character addresses and lays bear her soul. A poignant fictional biography chronicled through the letters of an emotionally traumatized and stunted young woman who, in her attempts to protect herself from the anguish of the foster system, is now struggling in her early adulthood for belonging and understanding. She is flawed, socially obtuse and even infuriating blunt, yet endearingly real.
With writing acuity that impugns the debut status of this novel, Katherine Reay introduces a complex story with an illustrious cast of characters that are wholly developed in spite of the singular point of view. Samantha’s biases and interpretations of a situation never dilute a reader’s understanding; instead, we are given greater insight in to her battered heart and harrowing history with her unfailing honesty and transparency. Through her eyes, we are made aware of things unseen by Samantha in spite of her doing the telling. A feat that can not be understated!
The writing is a perfect marriage between classical homage through quotes and modernity in circumstance and setting. The prose lilts across the page with equal doses of drama, humour and reflection. Samantha’s correspondence left in the hands of another would come across self-indulgent or self-pitying, but in Katherine Reay’s capable hands the words personify a woman desperate for truth and security. Readers journey through the whole emotional spectrum with Samantha (and at times against her) as the words find purchase in our own hurts, however similar or dissimilar they are to the characters’.
Alas, I am at a loss to convey how much this book touched my heart and moved my spirit. I find I must borrow Samantha’s tactics and quote from Mr Knightley himself:
“I cannot make speeches…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”-Jane Austen, Emma
A brilliant coming of age story with lovely romantic undertones that focuses on restoration. Certainly one of my favourite novels this year and a must read for any lover of classics, particularly Jane Austen. I am waiting in earnest for Katherine Reay’s 2014 release Lizzy & Jane.